Leading article: Cookery lessons are a must for all

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The Independent Online

The Government deserves much credit for embracing Jamie Oliver's campaign for healthier school dinners. Its plans bore fruit this week with the introduction of new nutritional standards - which mean every meal should include two vegetables and there will be a reduction in fattier foods. Diplomatically, too, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, sought to praise the role of the TV chef in placing the spotlight on the state of school dinners rather than - as Ruth Kelly had done - trying to take the credit himself. The main question mark, though, is whether schools will be able to persuade enough children to eat the healthier dinners rather than leave the premises at lunchtime or bring in packed lunches. Here Johnson was realistic. In Hull, where healthier dinners were introduced a few years ago, there was an initial fall in the number of children eating them - but, in the longer term, the strategy has been successful. That shows that the actual introduction of the new nutritional standards has to go hand in glove with an education campaign to explain to youngsters why they should engage with them.

Here, the Government's new pledge to 11- to 16-year-olds - that they will be entitled to study cookery from 2008 and learn healthy eating habits - comes into play. There should be only two cheers out of three for that proposal, however. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) says the lessons should be compulsory, and we are inclined to agree. At present, according to the ATL's annual conference, time for practical cookery in food technology lessons has been dramatically reduced. As one delegate put it: "We have a whole generation who can't and don't cook and who are bringing up children with no knowledge of good diet, hygiene, creative cookery or even basic cooking skills." The Government's new cookery course is designed to last for 24 hours, so it should not eat into lesson time too much. And it is likely that those least likely to volunteer for it are the ones who most need it - the ones who will ignore the need for a healthy lifestyle and be more prone to obesity. So, full marks to the Government for realising the importance of teaching cooking skills. But shouldn't the new course be made a compulsory part of the national curriculum?